How Britain Trains Picked Men to Reform Her Criminals
ALICE HARRIET PARSONSJanuary11934
A School for Jailers
How Britain Trains Picked Men to Reform Her Criminals
ALICE HARRIET PARSONS
Editor's Note:—Since Austin Campbell wrote “ House of Hate,” the series on life in Kingston Penitentiary, recently concluded in Maclean’s, a number of changes apparently have been made in regard to the treatment of inmates. Most prison problems have at their root the mailer of personnel. This article tells how Great Britain trains its prison officials for the positions entrusted to them.
L ESS THAN fifty years ago, Great Britain had one of the worst prison systems; today, it has probably one of the best in the world. Out of her experience of half a century—and Canada might well borrow from that experience—Great Britain has boiled the problem of penal reform down to the one word: personnel.
The modem British prison system is based on the theory that punishment rests with the judge and the prison’s primary job is remaking citizens. Recognizing that a theory must be put into practice by individuals, the British have concentrated on building up a prison personnel, who, from the prison commissioner to the humblest prison guard, understand the theory and are temperamentally fitted to carry out the practice.
They have not bothered much about buildings, or gone in for “model” prisons. It is obvious to a visitor that the prisoners are not living in luxury. Most of the prisons are old and w'ere built with no other thought than that of locking up prisoners as compactly as possible. The cells are as bare and lacking in comforts as one could w'ell imagine. Smoking is a forbidden luxury, except to long-term convicts who have served over four years. Discipline is absolute.
I doubt whether the average Canadian criminal would care to be transferred to a British prison as far as the question of his personal comfort during imprisonment is
But w'hile the physical equipment of the British prisons has not changed much, the system has undergone a complete metamorphosis. Using the same old prisons and the same restricted cells, the Prison Commission has gradually segregated the different classes of prisoners, introduced a system of stages w'hich provides progressive incentives to good conduct, created Borstal institutions, and replaced the old type of jailer wñth the courteous, intelligent and reasonable prison officer whom one meets today.
“Personnel? Well, after all, it’s really the secret of the whole thing, isn’t it?” Gilbert Hair, deputy governor of Wonmvood Scrubbs prison, w'ho is in charge of the training school for prison officers, said that to me when I visited the prison last summer.
The top of the British prison system is the Commission, a permanent body under the Civil Service, with headquarters at the Home Office in Whitehall. There are three commissioners and four assistant commissioners and inspectors. Under their control are all tire prisons of England and Wales, each with its governor and deputy governors. I have visited three British prisons and one Borstal institution, and I was unfailingly impressed by the calibre of the men who headed them. Twro were doctors, one was a former Army colonel; most of them w'ere university men. At the Borstal, not only the governor but most of the housemasters were graduates of Oxford or Cambridge. They were gentlemen of social standing in the community, men of wide understanding of human nature who could be counted on to be fair.
Beneath these officials comes the army of prison guards —or “officers” as they are invariably, and I think significantly, called in England. Nothing is left to chance in the British system. It is not assumed that these men w'ho take on the job of handling other men in captivity will have an instinctive knowledge of the principles of penal reform. They are selected and trained with the greatest care; and the two British training schools for prison officers, at Wakefield and Wormw'ood Scrubbs, are considered one of the most important links in building up the modem British prison system to the high standard it has set itself.
I visited the training school at Wormwood Scrubbs while class wras in session. In the schoolroom on the second floor of the ancient yellow-brick buildings, some thirty young men
w'ere seated at rows of desks, intently taking notes from the blackboard on which the chief officer was marking up columns of figures. They wrere in civilian clothes—a miscellaneous group, ranging in age from twenty-four to thirtylive. About two-thirds of them had served seven years training in the army; the others were recruited from a wide variety of occupations.
For every man in the class, a hundred or more applicants had gone into the discard. There is a prestige attaching to the position of prison officer in England, comparable to that of a policeman, so that entrance into the service becomes a highly prized goal in spite of the low salaries paid. (A single officer starts at forty-four shillings a week, plus his uniform, free medical attention and the right to live in the prison.)
The first training school was opened at Wakefield in 1925; that at Wormwood Scrubbs soon after. Nearly l.CXX) men have been trained since then. 120 being taken into the service each year and every year some 10,(XX) men apply for the positions.
The weeding-out process starts when a man’s application form comes to the Home Office. Those who are obviously unsuitable, either from the point of view of literacy, age or general qualifications, are immediately rejected. Those who succeed in passing this initial test are marked for interviews, w'hich are subsequently held by the assistant prison commissioners in various parts of the country. When the experienced eye of a man like Dr. J. C. W. Methven—-who served in France during the war and who was governor of a Borstal and a convict prison before becoming an assistant prison commissioner—looks over an applicant, there isn’t much chance for the wrong type of man to "get by.” At this stage of the proceedings, sixty j>er cent of the applicants are
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A School for Jailers
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turned down. Qualities of personality and character are particularly weighed in the interviews. Survivors must then undergo a medical test, which is even stricter than that for the police. Flat feet, jxx>r eyesight or defective hearing necessarily debar a man; and the minimum physical standard requires that he be at least five feet seven inches in height, 133 pounds in weight, and thirty-three inches in chest measurement.
“We don’t lay so much emphasis on size.” Mr. Hair said. "We don’t care so much for bulk as for brains, but we do attach great importance to physical fitness, believing
that a healthy body leads to a healthier mind.”
The final hurdle before being admitted to the training school is a mental test.
Prisoners’ Rights Safeguarded
CO WE COME back to the thirty young men who have done all these things successfully and are launched on their two months course at the training school.
When I visited them they were engrossed in the lessons on “stages.” They were learning how to mark a prisoner’s card. Normally, with good behavior, a prisoner passes from the first to the second stage at the end of two months. He then wins certain cherished privileges, such as the right to eat with his comrades instead of alone in his cell. During the third stage, he is allowed to talk with his fellow prisoners during the exercise hour. The fourth stage sees the prisoners put on their honor and allowed to walk and talk together with little supervision. Each stage is also accompanied by additional privileges
in regard to letters and visits. The exact period between stages and the extent of the privileges vary from prison to prison, but the basic principle is the same everywhere. By good behavior a prisoner may also win remission marks which reduce his term of confinement.
Loss of stage and remission, together with dietary punishment and close confinement, have largely replaced corporal punishment as a means of maintaining order and observance of the rules. The prisoners naturally set great store by the winning of stage and remission, and it is considered of the utmost importance that these marks shall be administered with absolute fairness.
There is a primary principle in the administration of British prisons—that no officer shall ever inflict any punishment, whether corporal, dietary, confinement or loss of stage, on his own initiative. He may argue with the prisoner, may use persuasion, may send a prisoner to his cell to “think it over.” But if the man remains obdurate, the case must go before the governor, who alone has the power to mete out punishment.
No officer dare touch a prisoner.
Like the English policeman, the prison officers are quite unarmed, except at Dartmoor, where they carry Crimean War carbines to stop the men running away while on outdoor work.
Even the governor of a prison seldom resorts to the “birch” or the “cat” for punishment. Only ten corporal punishments were inflicted in prisons last year, and each of these was for an assault on an officer. All sentences of corporal punishment must be confirmed by the Home Secretary, and the details are published in the annual reports of the Commissioners of Prisons.
THE STRESS IN the modem British prison is not on punishment but on reform. The homely phrase of the prison officer who showed me over the prison will always stick in my mind:
“You see, miss, what we are trying to do is to instill into the men that it isn’t worth the candle to go on the crook.”
He was a man who had been twenty-five years in the service, and he was much impressed with the changes brought about by recent reforms. He was particularly enthusiastic over the training school.
“We try to get it into their heads that this job isn’t just turning keys and making the men behave, but a chance for real service. We teach them to be courteous to the prisoners, because a good example is the best way to teach a man to do right, now isn’t it?”
The first lesson that the potential officer is given is on the causes of crime. From the very beginning he is trained to distinguish between the different types of prisoners. He learns the fundamental lesson that the degree of a man’s criminality is not determined by the length of his sentence.
A young man out of a job, influenced by bad associates, may commit a serious crime such as burglary and be sentenced to years of penal servitude. An older man who has been in prison twenty times may be serving only a few months sentence for the infraction of some minor law. Yet it is obvious that there is a greater chance of restoring the young burglar to a useful and self-respecting life than there is of reforming the repeater.
The student officer is taught to understand that this is the basic human fact behind the classification and segregation of prisoners in England into:
1. Star class—first offenders.
2. Special class—young men, usually under thirty years of age, who are vigorous
in body and mind but have had previous convictions.
3. Ordinary class—those who are unsuited to special treatment as “stars” or “specials.” Dr. Methven once said to me: “The
greatest problem in crime, as in sickness, is in contamination.”
Accordingly, the prison officer is taught the reason for, and the importance of, keeping the different classes of prisoners absolutely separate. As far as possible, distinct prisons have been set aside to handle the particular problems of the diverse types of prisoners, such as Maidstone Prison for “star” convicts, and Chelmsford for both long and short term “specials.” But where various groups have to be housed in one prison, different halls are set aside for their use, and they do not meet at meals, work or recreation.
Particularly in the case of young prisoners is segregation important, the prison officer learns. To an increasing extent, boys and girls between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one are sent to Borstals, but a large number who go to the ordinary prisons are kept away from older and more experienced criminals. The Borstal institutions, of which there are now eight, are especially designed for young offenders who have displayed definite criminal tendencies or whose surroundings and associates are likely to develop their aptitude for crime. They are distinguished by a fiat three-year sentence, regardless of the seriousness of the crime, in order to have an effectual working period for reform. The sentence may be reduced to two years by good progress.
Dishonest Officers Are Prosecuted
HE IS GIVEN a solemn warning against “trafficking,” or the unlawful carrying of goods and letters between prisoners and the outside world. “Trafficking” is considered the worst offense an officer can commit, and an officer caught at it not only instantly loses his job but is prosecuted and usually finds himself in the unwelcome rôle of prisoner.
The course finished, the student officer must take an examination and go before Prison Commissioner Alexander Paterson, whose name is known far and wide as prime mover in the improvement of the British prison system. Mr. Paterson confers with the governor and the deputy governor about each man, but his is the final word as to whether a candidate shall pass into the prison service.
Character is the deciding factor in the selection of the men. “Brain before brawn but character before brains”—that is the standard by which British prison officers are selected. If a man is a little slow in learning his job, that will not necessarily mitigate against him if he is a “sound fellow.” Give him time and he will learn the job, but no amount of time will compensate for flaws of character.
If Mr. Paterson says “yes,” the candidate dons the blue uniform of the force and becomes a probationary officer. For two months he receives special training in his practical duties. After that, his life is that of a full-fledged prison officer, except that he is on probation until the end of the year.
When at last he becomes a permanent officer—a civil servant whom not even the Government can dismiss -he is a far cry from the old-fashioned, brutal, stupid turnkey. He is a prison officer—a competent, courteous, honorable person, who respects himself and his service, who maintains discipline with dignity and reasonableness, and who is a help rather than a hindrance to the prison’s primary job of reforming the inmates.
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